I do not approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance. Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone.
Lady Bracknell comes onstage gossiping about a friend whose husband has died recently. Seating herself, she asks for one of the cucumber sandwiches Algernon has promised her. However, no cucumber sandwiches are in sight—Algernon, without realizing what he was doing, has devoured every last one. He gazes at the empty plate in horror and asks Lane sharply why there are no cucumber sandwiches. Quickly sizing up the situation, Lane explains blandly that he couldn’t find cucumbers at the market that morning. Algernon dismisses Lane with obvious, and feigned, displeasure. Lady Bracknell is not concerned, and she chatters about the nice married woman she’s planning to have Algernon take in to dinner that evening. Regretfully, Algernon tells Lady Bracknell that due to the illness of his friend Bunbury, he’ll be unable to come to dinner after all. Lady Bracknell expresses her irritation about Bunbury’s “shilly-shallying” over the question of whether he’ll live or die. To appease her, and to give Jack a chance to propose to Gwendolen, Algernon offers to go over the musical program for an upcoming reception with her and takes her into the music room.
Alone with Gwendolen, Jack awkwardly stammers out his admiration, and Gwendolen takes charge. She lets Jack know right away that she shares his feelings, and Jack is delighted. However, he is somewhat dismayed to learn that a good part of Gwendolen’s attraction to him is due to what she believes is his name—Ernest. Gwendolen is fixated on the name Ernest, which she feels has “a music of its own” and “inspires absolute confidence.” Gwendolen makes clear that she would not consider marrying a man who was not named Ernest.
Lady Bracknell returns to the room, and Gwendolen tells her she is engaged to Jack. Lady Bracknell then interviews Jack to determine Jack’s eligibility as a possible son-in-law. Jack seems to be giving all the right answers, until Lady Bracknell inquires into his family background. Jack explains that he has no idea who his parents were, and that he was found, by the man who adopted him, in a handbag in the cloakroom at Victoria Station. Lady Bracknell is scandalized. She forbids him from marrying Gwendolen and leaves the house angrily.
Algernon enters, and Jack reviews the results of his interview with Lady Bracknell, explaining that as far as Gwendolen is concerned the two of them are engaged. Algernon asks mischievously whether Jack has told her the truth about being “Ernest in town, and Jack in the country,” and Jack scoffs at the idea. He says he plans to kill off Ernest by the end of the week by having him catch a severe chill in Paris. Algernon asks whether Jack has told Gwendolen about his ward, Cecily, and again Jack scoffs at the question. He claims Cecily and Gwendolen will surely become friends and “will be calling each other sister.”
Gwendolen reenters and asks to speak privately with Jack. She tells him how the story of his childhood has stirred her and declares her undying love, whatever happens. She asks Jack for his address in the country and Algernon listens in, jotting it down on his cuff. Jack exits with Gwendolen to show her to her carriage, and Lane comes in with some bills, which Algernon promptly tears up. He tells Lane he plans to go “Bunburying” the next day and asks him to lay out “all the Bunbury suits.” Jack returns, praising Gwendolen, and the curtain falls on Algernon laughing quietly and looking at his shirt cuff.
The scene in which Jack proposes to Gwendolen portrays a reversal of Victorian assumptions about gender roles. Propriety demanded that young women be weak and ineffectual, helpless vessels of girlish admiration and passivity, while men were supposed to be authoritative and competent. Here, however, Jack stammers ineffectually, and Gwendolen takes the whole business of the marriage proposal out of his hands. Wilde has some fun with the rigidity of Victorian convention when he has Gwendolen backtrack and insist that Jack start the whole proposal process over again, doing it properly. The social commentary in this scene goes deeper than the Victorian concern with propriety. In the figure of Gwendolen, a young woman obsessed with the name Ernest, and not with actual earnestness itself, Wilde satirizes Victorian society’s preoccupation with surface manifestations of virtue and its willingness to detect virtue in the most superficial displays of decent behavior. The Ernest/earnest joke is a send-up of the whole concept of moral duty, which was the linchpin of Victorian morality.